Image by Andrew Ruiz
“I don’t want to die,” the five-year-old announces matter-of-factly from his seat in the middle row of the car. “Anyway, when people die, what happens to all their things?”
“Well other people, their friends and family, usually look after their things.”
“What’s dying like anyway?” the nine-year-old wants to know.
“Sirius Black said that it’s as easy as going to sleep,” offers the Harry Potter-reader.
“How to you get to heaven?” the five-year-old asks.
We’re on the way to a joint First Holy Communion and twin baptisms. I don’t know how we got onto this subject, but it comes up now and again and here I am, having to discuss the four last things to four children with varying ages and capacities while trying to make sure I don’t miss the right exit off the M1.
“Well, first, some people die in their sleep, and that can be a great favour from God, especially if they very old or sick and ready to go,” I tell them. “But accidents and things can happen to people. In fact there are some great old prayers asking for the grace of a happy death.”
“Then how do you get to heaven?”
“Jesus will bring you there if you want him to and live as his friends.”
“Well I don’t want to, I want to stay here.”
“Yeah, me too,” they all chime in.
We’ve covered all this before, how heaven is like the best party they can imagine, how death is a normal part of life. Many times and in different ways, but they are still unconvinced. Like most adults, I suspect.
The current wisdom about sex education is that children don’t just need one big ‘birds and bees talk’, but to be given information as the need or opportunity arises throughout their childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, with the topic being revisited at different angles or deepening levels.
It’s the same with death, I realise, and as I exit the busy freeway I settle in and take a tack that I haven’t used before.
“Can you imagine if you were still inside mama’s body, all comfortable and warm and someone told you, ‘You don’t get to stay here, you’re going to be born and go somewhere else?’
“Would you be scared and say, ‘I don’t want to be born, I love it here’?
“And what if they said, ‘Trust me, it’s great out in the world, there’s ice cream and parks and hugs and lots of things you can’t enjoy in there. Plus, you’ll be with your mum and dad’. You wouldn’t even know what those words mean.
“You were alive when you were inside my body but you couldn’t have as much fun as you can now. It’s the same with the end of our life here. We can’t imagine the next bit, and if people on the other side explained it we wouldn’t be able to understand. We just have to trust when the Bible says that we will be happy with Jesus there.”
They were quiet. Either they were taking in what I said, or they’d had enough of my catechist-on-the-fly mode.
It gave me time to reflect on what I’d said. When I was labouring with our first baby I appreciated the enthusiasm of the cheering squad of husband, two midwives, doctor, and a med student who were in attendance.
Birthing a baby was such an unknown to me, I didn’t even know how to push properly. Their loud encouragement got me over the final contractions. Meanwhile little Naomi was unaware of how she was being carried along by my labouring and the cries of a room-full of people including her father into a world that was unutterably new but had also been an ever-present reality.
So the saints cheer us on through life, giving us encouragement all the way to heaven.
Later in the day our friends remind us that now their children are baptised, they have already begun their eternal lives with Christ.
But while we live it here in embryonic form, we can be much more aware of what’s happening on the other side, including our cheering squad who have been where we are and are urging us on.
All you holy men and women, pray for us!
This was my column published recently in The Catholic Weekly.